Thursday, October 16, 2008

Researching Your Civil War Ancestor: The Regular Army

Although at first glance more genealogical than historical, this topic is one that I encounter often in my research. When researching a particular soldier, if one can find the state from which the soldier served, more than likely one can find the unit and then probably the county from which he served. A good deal of the time, state muster rolls, adjutant general reports or the appropriate county historical society can steer one the rest of the way home from there.

Not so when researching Regular Army soldiers. Resources are few and far between. Knowledge that an ancestor served in Company C, 6th US Infantry, for example, provides no clues as to where the ancestor was born, when he enlisted, if he survived, and if so where and under what conditions he left the army. At first blush there appear to be no clues, but there are paths to follow if one knows where to start looking for clues.

We’ll assume for the purposes of this article that you don’t want to spend $75-150 or more on a request for the person’s service records from the National Archives (NARA). While the NARA researchers do a very good job, it’s slow and expensive. They’re also limited to the starting information that you can provide them.

A good first step is the National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers & Sailors database. This is an exhaustingly compiled list of everyone who served during the Civil War from either side, their unit, and their rank entering and leaving service. That’s about the limit of available information, but it’s a very good starting point. It’s also an exceptional resource for attempting to cross-reference those who served in both volunteer and regular units, since many volunteers joined regular units in the fall of 1862. Some unit history for both volunteer and regular units is also available on the site.

There are two cautions about the CWSS. First, officers of the regular army are not included in the database unless they were enlisted men during the war prior to receiving their commission. Thus, Lt Adna R. Chaffee is included, while Maj Gen George B. McClellan is not. This problem has been noted and NPS is working to fix this. Second, the entries for regular army personnel encompass the years 1861-1865 in their entirety and not specifically the dates of the war. For volunteer units this isn’t an issue, but there was tremendous turnover in regular army regiments during the summer and fall of 1865. When researching one company of the 6th US Cavalry, I found 54 soldiers who were listed in CWSS, but joined the regiment after the war had ended. With these two things in mind, however, I still think CWSS is the best place to start.

The next stop should be the Civil War Archive . It also has a comprehensive list of soldiers and units. There is a usage fee for the site, but they periodically provide free access to attract more subscribers. To my mind, it is well worth the price of registration. In my experience, this site has more information and lists the sources for the information on each soldier or unit. One note: if one of the sources listed for a soldier is not the Index of Consolidated Military Service records, or if the name that you’re looking for was in CWSS and is not there, that person probably enlisted in the summer or fall of 1865. This and the Regulars Archive provide the easiest and best unit historical data on the internet.

After using the first two sites to confirm or deny your starting information, I recommend that you go to If one selects the appropriate membership, one can search the “Descriptive and Historical Register of Enlisted Soldiers of the Army” for an individual’s enlistment information. This is actually a scan of the registers used in Washington to track all of the soldiers enlisted in the regular army by date and then alphabetically. The search on Ancestry will lead you to a scan of the page where the individual’s information is listed, along with 30-40 others. These pages are a tremendous resource. Information includes last name, first name, place of birth, enlistment date and location, presiding officer, hair color, eye color, complexion, company, regiment, and remarks including date and manner of separation from the army. This one oversized sheet will usually tell you if the person in question was killed in action, deserted, or discharged at the expiration of their term of service. One can usually find the location where they left the service and their rank. There are also two cautions for this site. First, prepare yourself for the joys of interpreting 19th Century handwriting and the ensuing headache associated with it. Second, some scans are better than others, and occasionally entries are illegible. This is the most comprehensive information that I’ve been able to find on individual soldiers anywhere. While there is a cost associated with access, it’s for a year of unlimited access, as opposed to a search of one individual’s service records at NARA.

For unit data, I recommend the Regulars Archive or Civil War Archive, both mentioned previously. The first is a free, privately maintained site, which includes unit history information as well as contemporary reference works on tactics, curriculum from West Point, etc. The Civil War Archives’ unit histories are comprehensive, and usually include one or more official reports from the unit on a particular action.

The regular army expanded by several regiments over the course of the war, particularly in 1861. If one checks where the unit was raised, this might also help determine where the individual was living when they enlisted. It is important to check both the locations where the regiment itself and its companies were raised, as the regiments were seldom raised entirely in one city or even state. The 6th US Cavalry, for example, was raised in at least four states. This particularly helpful for researching immigrants who had been in the country only a short time before the war.


john peffer said...

Don, Thanks for all your work!!
My G-G Grandfather was John Peffer in the 6th Cavalry.
If you have anything on him I would appreciate your assistance.
Thanks Again,
John L. Peffer

Don said...


Great to hear from you, thanks for stopping by! I'll be posting what I have on your ancestor here in a couple of minutes. If you have any further info, I'd love to hear from you.